Topic:
CONSTITUTIONAL LAW; ELECTION ADMINISTRATION;
Location:
ELECTIONS;

OLR Research Report


August 31, 2000

 

2000-R-0875

ELECTORAL COLLEGE

 

By: Mary M. Janicki, Assistant Director

You asked for information on the Electoral College, its history, and whether presidential electors are required to vote for the candidate who won the state's popular vote. You also want to know if there have been recent attempts to modify or eliminate the Electoral College and substitute the direct popular election of the president.

SUMMARY

The framers of the U.S. Constitution devised the method for electing the president and vice president, creating the Electoral College. Representatives from each state vote on the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December following the presidential election. Though custom, legislation in some states, or political party pledges dictate that electors vote for the candidates who won the popular vote in their states, nothing in the Constitution requires them to do so. In fact, most electors cast their votes for their party's nominees when voting. Still, “faithless electors” have occasionally voted for their own preference, rather than the candidates who won the popular vote.

Because the Electoral College is established in the Constitution, it would take a constitutional amendment to change it. Over the years, there have been many attempts to do so, mostly proposals to eliminate it and substitute the direct election of the president and vice president.

One such resolution is pending in the 106th Congress, though no action has been taken on it since its referral to a Judiciary Committee subcommittee. While critics of the Electoral College view it as problematic (indirect with the potential to elect a president who received fewer popular votes than an opponent but more Electoral College votes), supporters argue that it maintains the compromise that the framers intended and protects the federal system and the interests of all states.

BACKGROUND

The U.S. Constitution created the Electoral College (Art. I, 1). The Electoral College is a group of representatives chosen by the voters of each state to elect the president and vice president of the United States. Every state has as many electoral votes (representatives) as the total of its senators and representatives in Congress. Connecticut has eight.

The manner of electing the president posed a problem at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Convention delegates rejected the proposal that Congress elect the president, because it would violate the principle of separation of powers. The proposal that the people elect the president directly was also rejected (the same convention adopted the indirect election of U.S. senators as well). As a compromise, the convention adopted a method of indirect popular election, which became the Electoral College.

Historical anomalies occurred in the 19th century when three candidates became president who had lost the nationwide popular vote. The three were John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888.

THE “FAITHLESS ELECTOR”

Electors remain constitutionally free to cast their votes for president and vice president for any candidates they like, subjecting the system to the possibility that a “faithless elector” will vote for someone other than his party's candidate. Some states have legislative restrictions on electors. Connecticut law requires electors to vote for the candidates under whose names they ran on the ballot at the general election (CGS 9-176). The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1952 that a political party has the right to require pledges from candidates for the office of elector (Ray v. Blair, 343 U.S. 214).

Historically in most elections, the candidate who won the highest number of a state's popular votes received all the state's electoral votes.

However, seven electors in the 20th century have voted for another candidate. Connecticut electors have never done so and a faithless elector has never changed the outcome of an election.

ATTEMPTS TO CHANGE METHOD OF PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

Because the Electoral College was established by the U.S. Constitution, any change in its operation or its elimination requires a constitutional amendment. In the current 106th Congress, one resolution proposes to amend the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College and provide for the direct popular election of the president and vice president. Rep. Ray LaHood (IL-R) introduced House Joint Resolution 23, which was referred to the House Judiciary Committee on February 4, 1999, then to the Subcommittee on the Constitution on February 25. No further action has been taken on the measure.

Under the resolution, the candidates for president and vice president who receive the greatest number of votes would be elected. This particular proposal calls for a runoff election if the candidates receive less than 40% of the vote. The complete text of HJ Res. 23 can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?c106:1:./temp/~c1063jrWw9::

Dozens of attempts to change the Electoral College system have failed over the years. Judiciary Committee chairman, Representative Henry Hyde, was reported to have said in 1997 when a similar measure came to the committee that he had no plans to hold committee hearings on the resolution and opposed the amendment because it “strikes at the very heart of the compromise that put this country together” (Boston Globe, September 5, 1997). Critics of direct elections say the practice would lead to candidates concentrating their campaign efforts on heavily populated areas, reducing the importance of the states in the federal system and ignoring minorities and issues that can be crucial to winning in particular states.

MJ:ts